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Open letter to Chief Justice of India: Rest in Peace, investigative journalism!

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
27 Dec 2021
Open Letter to Chief Justice of India, by A.J. Philip, Indian Currents

Dear Justice N.V. Ramana Ji,

It is from a widely-publicised open letter that Shri P. Sainath wrote to you that I learnt that you began your career as a journalist with Ramoji Rao’s Eenadu group of newspapers. I remember how the newspaper with several editions revolutionized, if not transformed, Telugu journalism. Many years later, I had the luck to visit ETV’s office at the Film City in Hyderabad where I was stunned by the range and size of its operations.

You have lamented the death of investigative journalism in the country. You have cherished memories of the days when the Press in India showed the mirror to those in power and exposed them for what they were, corrupt, morally and ethically degenerate and, therefore, worthy of being shown the door. 

That was the time when every journalist worth his salt aspired to be an investigative journalist, whom Joseph Pulitzer described as a muckraker.

Yes, they were indeed muckrakers because they sought to expose what is hidden under the muck. You have done a great service to society by reminding the people of the death of investigative journalism. At least there is a semblance of debate on the subject, sparked by your reference to it.

There are many reasons for the investigative journalist disappearing from the public space. I would like to concentrate just on the role the judiciary played in placing one more log on its funeral pyre or the last shovel of soil on its grave.

I do not claim to be a brave or investigative journalist, out to expose those in power. Every time I write a piece, be it in this magazine or on Facebook, whether it is an open letter to the Prime Minister or the Home Minister or the UP Chief Minister, my friends send me a message, “Be safe”, in various forms depending on the sender’s religious belief.

This is a new phenomenon. I have been writing this column for at least a quarter century but it is only now that I receive such kind advice, “stay safe, may God protect you” etc. Why is this so? They know that those in power are capable of finding something wrong in what I write and sending me to jail where in the absence of medical care, I may become a Stan Swamy.

Recently, I watched Karan Thapar’s interview with Aakar Patel, whose book ‘The Price of Modi Years’ came out recently. His previous book was titled ‘Our Hindu Rashtra: What It Is. How We Got Here’. Let me confess, I am yet to read either of his books, though I would like to. 

Aakar Patel came across as a soft-spoken person, who has been critically examining the Modi years with some sort of detachment, the hallmark of a scholar.

In the long interview, he never lost his cool, unlike Modi who asked for a glass of water before walking out of Thapar’s live interview. He answered all his questions and his articulation was sometimes much better than that of the famous interviewer. What surprised me is that Thapar concluded his interview by wishing Aakar Patel, “Stay Safe”! That has never been Karan Thapar’s style of concluding his interview. 

That forces me to ask the question, why do people find it necessary to remind their friends or relatives who question the government in the public fora to remain “safe”? I do not have to tell your honour that in India the journalist, budding or investigative, does not enjoy any special privilege.

Whatever privileges the journalist enjoys are the privileges that a citizen of the country enjoys, unlike in the US where journalists have a limited First Amendment right not to be forced to reveal information or confidential news sources in court. My argument is not that we should give special privileges to journalists.

The greatest strength of a journalist or a citizen is that he can approach the court and get redressal of his grievance. Once this right is gone, he will be at the mercy of the police or the investigating agency which is, often, at the beck and call of those in power. When the Jesuit priest, Stan Swamy, died in police custody, the Bombay High Court hearing his bail application stood up and paid respect to the departed soul.

The next day when the police, which did not interrogate him even for a second after he was arrested, objected to the court paying last respect to him, the learned judges rescinded their action. Why could they not ask the prosecution to get lost. That needed guts which was, alas, found lacking in them. They behaved like Pilate who allowed the mob to have the blood of Jesus, though he knew in his heart of hearts that he was innocent.

Every time a judge gives a verdict, it sends out a signal that either emboldens or discourages a journalist. Take the case of a recent verdict given by a single-member Bench of the Kerala High Court. A petitioner, Shri Peter Myaliparambil, approached the court against the practice of printing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s picture on the Covid vaccination certificates. He had a point that the practice was unacceptable.

I have taken the two doses of Covishield vaccine for which I paid from my own pocket. What role did Modi play in the vaccines I had? Nothing at all. Yet, I am forced to look at his face every time I have to take it out for travel or for other purposes. Justice PV Kunhikrishnan found the case “frivolous”. He had the power to dismiss the petition and hold his own views.

What I found unacceptable is the long lecture the judge gave on democracy. He said Modi had not come by removing the roof of a building. He was the elected leader etc. Tomorrow the same judge may say the same thing if Modi in his abundant wisdom decides to have his picture printed on the cover of the passports issued in the country? After all, it was this government which proposed to have multiple coloured passports, for various sections of the people like blue collar and white collar workers, bureaucrats, aristocrats, diplomats etc.

What’s worse, the petitioner was fined Rs 1 lakh. If I were the judge I might also have dismissed the case because the courts could not be expected to review all the government decisions. I might have added that the PM had the power to have his photograph printed on the Covid death certificates as well! 

Rs 1 lakh is a big amount for an individual petitioner. When advocate Prashant Bhushan was accused of a far more serious crime of causing contempt of the court, the Supreme Court imposed a fine of only Re 1.

The verdict is a reminder to anyone who challenges a government decision in a court of law. Siddique Kappan is a freelance journalist from Kerala. I know how poorly paid freelance journalists are. He wanted to go to Hathras in UP to report a macabre incident. He got a free lift and he went there. On the way, the police arrested him and he has been in jail for the last one year. What crime has he committed? I am sure he will have to be released if he survives the ordeal of the jail. Will the government compensate him?

In Kappan’s own state Kerala, a working journalist was hit by a speeding car and he died instantly. The driver of the car was a senior IAS officer who was in a state of inebriation. He did not spend a single day in jail. Today he is back in service, enjoying all the creature comforts that come with the three letters, IAS, while the journalist’s family has been going from pillar to post. This is how journalists are now treated in the country.

The Prime Minister had the practice of letting journalists accompany him on a rotational basis whenever he traveled abroad. As a routine, the PM used to address the Press on board the aircraft twice during the journey, once while going and once while returning. The journalists were free to ask him any questions, not necessarily related to the trip concerned. Modi stopped this practice. Now he does not want the journalists to sit in the Press gallery in Parliament or meet MPs and ministers in the Central Hall of Parliament.

It is a blatant attempt to muzzle the Press and stop the free flow of information. The government feels that it has various other fora like the PM’s Mann Ki Baath, tweets on Twitter and non-stop coverage of PM’s visit to Kashi using as many as 55 cameras of Doordarshan to reach the people. They do not want journalists who question him. They want journalists who are his loudspeakers.

One of the first things Modi did after he returned to power in 2019 was to reduce the status of Jammu and Kashmir to Union Territories. You are welcome to check the BJP’s poll promises as contained in its election manifestos. At no time did it make such a promise though abrogation of Article 370 was one of its key agendas. 

How did the court deal with the issue? Or, when the citizenship laws were amended and millions of people came out on the streets protesting against the new laws. The court did precious little. It was more concerned about a group of women blocking a small stretch of road in Delhi. 

One of your predecessors has in his autobiography described how he and his fellow judges celebrated the Ayodhya Verdict in which they upheld the Muslim case to a T and, yet, allowed a temple to come up at the same spot where a mosque stood for hundreds of years. They went to a five-star hotel in Delhi and drank the choicest wine available there. 

For the whole one year, the farm sector in the country was upset over the three controversial laws Parliament enacted hastily. True, the court stayed the operation of the laws. It also appointed a committee to study the situation. Alas, the court did not have the courage to publish the report of the committee which is still under wraps.

Why should the court be afraid of releasing the report? I do not want to speculate on its contents. However, the decision to junk the report did not show the court in a good light. Finally, it was the determination of the farmers to fight to the finish, rather than the court’s intervention, that resulted in the rescinding of the three controversial laws.

In my younger days, journalists aspired to join a media organisation from where they aspired to retire as assistant editors or editors. Today, a graduate who did his journalism course is given a contract for two or three years. As he or she grows old, the chances of getting a job are almost nil. Contract labourer cannot be expected to take on the mighty government, particularly when the media organisations they work for are hand in glove with those in power as during the Third Reich. 

Today a successful journalist is one who becomes an MLA or MP or minister. No one values the role of an independent journalist who, like the Prophets in the Old Testament, had the courage to tell the rulers that they were naked if they are indeed naked. Is it any wonder that investigative journalism is becoming a concept of the past with no future at all?

When the fundamentals of the Constitution are trampled upon day and night in the eagerness to make India a theocratic state where one man’s word is the law, why blame poor journalists alone if they do not find the situation conducive to investigate, report and survive too? 

Before I conclude, I must thank you once again for generating a debate on the subject and wish you, your brother and sister judges of the Supreme Court a very happy Christmas and a prosperous and joyful New Year.

Yours etc
ajphilip@gmail.com

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